The Taste Buds
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Downtown dining institution The Southern Steak & Oyster celebrates 10 years of shucking oysters and serving sizzling steaks to downtown residents and droves of tourists this year. Chef de cuisine Mike Detzel dishes with The Nashvillian about what inspired him to start cooking, what’s on his kitchen playlist, and The Southern’s last decade of shucking and jiving, quite literally, in downtown Nashville.
The Orlando-born chef first found his way to cooking as a way to control the chaotic world around him. Detzel was still in elementary school when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. He began grocery shopping and cooking nightly out of necessity, alongside his brother, at just 10 years of age. He quickly learned to love cooking, even if it was “just grilled chicken from the George Foreman.”
“I think I gained a sense of independence from this experience,” he says now. “In a world that seemed so out of my control at 10 years old, cooking dinner for my brother, my mom and myself was the one thing I could control.”
Years later, as an undergrad at the University of Florida, Detzel recalls struggling to pick a major and, by extension, career. He settled on getting a degree in French, “mostly because I had decided I wanted to go to culinary school, and figured that speaking French could only help.” AFter he completed a kitchen internship in a small French bistro, he knew he was headed down the right path.
“After college, I moved to New Orleans to get fine-dining experience,” he says. “I worked for some great chefs out there, like John Besh, Donald Link, and Scott Boswell. Through his New Orleans connections, he was asked to help open a restaurant in Knoxville, so he packed up shop and moved to Tennessee. However, “I quickly realized it was not the right business venture for me to take part in,” he says. “I decided to move to Nashville, where the food scene was growing with possibility.” Detzel joined TomKats Hospitality Group in 2015, and assumed the chef de cuisine role at The Southern in 2019.
“I love the people and the open atmosphere,” he says enthusiastically. Having culinary freedom and happy employees and customers are added bonuses that make a great daily work environment. “[The Southern] is a place I have wanted to come back to five days a week for more than seven years. I feel like that says a lot about the place.” And in a restaurant industry that’s been affected heavily the last few years via traumatic events such as the 2020 tornado, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 2020 Christmas Day bombing downtown, that is certainly an impactful statement.
Noting how drastically Nashville’s downtown dining landscape of downtown Nashville has changed over the last 10 years, TomKats Hospitality COO Lauren Morales sees The Southern as an oasis for locals. “We’ve seen the city change dramatically around us,” she says. “We are surrounded by more towers, more tourists, less parking, but The Southern is a steady, comforting presence — a welcome table!”
The Southern, which is located on the ground floor of Nashville’s first-ever LEED-certified high-rise, and sustainability has always been a central focus for the team. The restaurant features locally grown produce whenever possible, direct-sourced local beef, sustainably caught seafood, and a wood-fired grill that’s powered by salvaged hickory wood. The team prides itself on maximizing output while minimizing its imprint and staying rooted in a commitment to reduce, reuse, and recycle.
As far as oyster sourcing goes in landlocked Music City, the restaurant’s selection changes based on what purveyors have available. In general, Detzel says, he likes to offer at least one variety from Connecticut, New York or the Chesapeake Bay area, at least one from New Brunswick and/or Prince Edward Island (cold Northern Canadian oysters), a salty boy from Massachusetts, and maybe one from the West Coast, but only if he’s convinced they were harvested in good time.
For raw oyster first-timers, Detzel recommends the Beausoleil, from the Atlantic coast. "It is clean, small, and crisp, with good salinity but not too briny. It comes from cold, cold water, and it is cared for extremely well by the growers.” (See a recipe for the Southern’s grilled lemon-garlic oysters, champagne mignonette sauce, and the chef’s kitchen playlist below.)
"The Southern has changed from being a shiny new restaurant that people simply wanted to try because it was new, to becoming a Nashville institution that people want to return to every time they are in town,” Detzel says. “We’re loved by locals and tourists alike, but the true honor is being at the helm of a place that has been favored by locals for more than 10 years.”
The goal of TomKats owner and CEO Tom Morales has always been to keep Nashville “authentic.” At The Southerm that plays out in the décor, the food, the atmosphere, and the Southern hospitality every guest receives time and time again.
“It's pretty often that someone visiting from out of town will try us for the first time, and come back every night following before they head home again,” says Detzel. “In a city with so many options, that's a true compliment.”
Pearls of wisdom:
Recipes and Playlist from The Southern:
Grilled Lemon-Garlic Oysters
1 pound butter, softened
4 tablespoons lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons minced shallot
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh basil
2 tablespoons fresh thyme
3 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
Freshly shucked oysters
- Place all ingredients in a food processor. Blend until all ingredients are completely incorporated. Keep chilled in the refrigerator until ready to use.
- Heat the grill.
- Place 1 tablespoon of chilled Lemon Garlic Butter on each freshly shucked oyster on the half shell.
Place the dressed oysters on the grill and cook until butter is melted and bubbling around the oyster, approximately 3-4 minutes. Do not overcook.
1 cup champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons freshly cracked
1/2 cup minced shallots
1 tablespoon minced chives
Pinch of salt
Combine all ingredients together, stirring well, before placing 2 teaspoons (or more) of the mixture on each freshly shucked oyster. Enjoy promptly!
The Southern’s SoundBites
The Nashvillian: Let’s talk about your restaurant kitchen playlist. What’s on constant rotation?
Mike Detzel: Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young, The Beatles, Wilco, ’90s jams, and some indie gems like Sonic Youth, Dr. Dog, and Beirut.